From Saxon Pig Farmer to Urban Gentleman, 1868-1937

Franz Fischer (standing, center) with his brothers and sisters at the Fischer farm in Küingdorf   about 1900. The stern pair at the table are his parents. Franz’ sister Berta holds his arm.  Click for a larger image.

My mother’s father, Franz Fischer, for whom I am named, was born on a pig farm in the village of Küingdorf, Germany in 1868, 3 1/2 weeks after his parents married. Located on the border between Westphalia and Hanover ( now Niedersachsen or Lower Saxony ), the landscape around Küingdorf is reminiscent of parts of Vermont or central Pennsylvania.  The farm had sufficient land to raise grain to feed the pigs as well as a productive and profitable forest area.  The farm was prosperous and well-maintained, but a pig farm all the same,

Franz was the oldest of nine children and in other another area of Germany would have been the heir apparent.  It was a peculiarity of the traditional law in the Küingdorf area, however, that a farm was inherited by the youngest son, not the oldest.  Thus, Franz knew early on that he would have to find another way than farming to earn his living.  So while still a very young man he became interested in that most modern of conveyances, the bicycle.

Franz Fischer as a young man with his bicycle, about 1900.

In 1902, Franz met Clara Schallenberg, a city girl.  She was the daughter of a successful retail and wholesale merchant dealing in household china and kitchen ware.  Franz and Clara married in 1903.

Clara Schallenberg, later Fischer, around 1900.

One of the first things Franz and Clara did when they married was to register as Konfessionslos — without religious affiliation — in the local registry office.  This registration would exempt them from church taxes.  My mother wrote later of Franz and Clara, “I grew up in a pleasant, peaceful family in which I was taught to have deep disrespect for organized religion and great respect for fundamental ethical principles that none of us would ever abandon. Our father’s principles were rather simple:  we do the right things, not to appeal to some figure ‘up there’ in the sky, but simply to do the right thing.”  It was a powerful moral rectitude grounded in principled atheism.

Although Franz was born a farm boy, in the city of Dusseldorf he made himself into a gentleman in a time when social mobility was more limited than it is today.  While industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century brought substantial migration from farm to city,  Franz and Clara took things a step further and entered the Bildungsbuergertum, the literate and cultured middle class.  I remember the proud, respectful tone in my grandmother Clara’s voice when she told me Franz was ein richtiger Herr, a genuine gentleman. Clearly one of the things that made Franz a gentleman is that he dressed the part.


Franz Fischer around the time of his marriage to Clara Schallenberg, 1903.

As Franz’ business prospered, he and Clara attended concerts and plays, kept a large library and read extensively.  Clara could recite long passages from Goethe and other German classics as well as Shakespeare and the Bible, her atheism notwithstanding.  Franz and Clara sent their daughter, my mother Elfriede, to the university preparatory school (Gymnasium) and supported her through her PhD. at Heidelberg. Franz embellished his considerable library by pasting a handsome book plate, designed by a friend who was a graphic artist, inside each cover.

Franz Fischer’s book plate, 1920s.

Franz and Clara remained committed to bicycling throughout their lives.

Franz and Clara Fischer around 1930.


Clara Fischer and Franz Fischer walking in Düsseldorf, about 1930

Franz died in 1937, well before I was born, but his photographs have made him very real to me.  From my mother’s stories about him, he was an easy person to like and was admired by those who knew him.

Franz Fischer not long before his death in 1937.



Deutsche Ausgabe erscheint im Sommer 2018 // The German Edition is Coming this Summer

Deutsche Ausgabe: “Deutsche auf der Flucht, Ein Briefwechsel zwischen Deutschland und Amerika von 1938 bis 1939.”, erscheint im Sommer 2018.


Liebe Kollegen/innen, Freunde, Verwandte,

Grüße aus Philadelphia!  Es freut mich sehr, Ihnen/euch mitteilen zu können, dass mein Buch, Against Time, Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, im Frühsommer dieses Jahres in deutsche Fassung erscheinen wird. Der deutsche Titel lautet, Deutsche auf der Flucht, ein Briefwechsel zwischen Deutschland und Amerika von 1938 bis 1939. Viele von Ihnen/euch kennen das Buch schon auf Englisch, und der Berliner Lukas Verlag wird jetzt die deutsche Version des Buchs herausgeben.  Es ist eine besondere Ehre, dass die Kosten der Veröffentlichung durch die Stiftung Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand (Berlin) unterstützt werden. Für weitere Informationen zum Buch, siehe unten.

Im Laufe des letzten Jahres habe ich mich mit der Abfassung der deutschen Version beschäftigt.  Ich bedanke mich bei den deutschen und amerikanischen Kollegen/innen und Freunden/innen, die meine Forschungen im Bereich meiner Familiengeschichte in den letzten Jahren Unterstützt haben.  Natürlich werde ich Ihnen/euch allen das Veröffentlichungsdatum ankündigen, sobald ein Termin festgelegt ist.

Mit freundliche Grüße, Ihr/euer



Dear Colleagues, Friends and Relatives,

Greetings from Philadelphia! I am pleased to tell you that my book, Against Time:  Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, will be issued in a German edition this summer.  The German title is Deutsche auf der Flucht, ein Briefwechsel zwischen Deutschland und Amerika von 1938 bis 1939, (“Germans Fleeing:  An Exchange of Letters Between Germany and America from 1938 to 1939”). I am honored that the costs of publication are being supported by the German Resistance Memorial Foundation in Berlin. During the last year I have been occupied with the preparation of the German edition, which involved translating my notes and comments from English to German and re-editing all of the original German letters written by my parents.  I am grateful to the American and German colleagues and friends who have supported my research into my family’s history over the last several years.  I will, of course, let everyone know when a definite publication date has been set.

The English edition remains available from the publisher and on Amazon.  For further information about that book, click here.

Best wishes,


English edition:  Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, by Francis W. Hoeber. Published by the American Philosophical Society Press, September 2015.


This Website is Now Also a Book


Francis W. Hoeber, A Family Over Three Centuries, 2018.

A FAMILY OVER THREE CENTURIESprivately printed, incorporates all 82 stories from this website, Hoeber:  A Family Over Three Centuries. Current technology makes it possible to print small quantities of this 300-page book with high quality images for a manageable price.  While the website provides the opportunity to reach many readers around the world, it is a different kind of pleasure to hold abook in your hand, scan the illustrations, and dip into a story that catches your eye at random.


I prepared the book version primarily for family and friends. The process required reformatting the online material page by page using Indesign and Photoshop software, but the product is worth the effort.  The Blurb Books service that did the printing provides high quality reproduction of the text and illustrations. If any readers of this website would like a copy, I will have one printed for you for my cost of printing ($50 US) and postage (varies). Please contact me through the comments section below if you would like information about getting a copy. 

It is gratifying that the site has received more than 36,000 hits from nearly a hundred countries, from Algeria to Zambia.   I have become acquainted — and even friends — with dozens of historians, writers and other interested readers who have contacted me about the content of these stories.  The site has been in hiatus for some months as I have been preparing the book, but postings will resume in 2018.




The Gestapo Has No Sense of Humor – Düsseldorf 1933

The National Socialists took control of the German government on January 30, 1933 and consolidated their power with great speed.  Political street violence had been part of German life for a long time, but the Nazis escalated that pattern rapidly and brutally, using terrorist tactics to wipe out political opposition in a matter of weeks.  My father, Johannes (1904-1977), was the first victim in our family, when he was arrested in March and imprisoned for several weeks because of his liberal politics, and my grandfather, Rudolf (1873-1953),was next when he was expelled from his professor’s position the following fall, in part because of actions he took against Nazi students.  The situation with my mother’s brothers was something else entirely.

My mother had three younger brothers who, in 1933, were in their mid-twenties. All three were good looking and charming, with cheerful dispositions and a taste for evenings with friends in the taverns of Düsseldorf’s Altstadt, taverns with names like the Golden Kettle (Im Goldenen Kessel) and Fatty’s Irish Pub, which are still popular today. On the night of Tuesday, November 7, 1933, my uncles Paul Fischer (1909-1947), a recent law graduate still in training, and Herbert Fischer (1907-1992), by day in business with his father, went out for an evening of socializing.   Their father Franz (1868-1937) and older brother Günter (1906-1979) were away on a business trip for several days.

Herbert Fischer (1907-1992). This picture was taken several years after his imprisonment by the Gestapo in 1933.

The social evening lasted until 3 :00 in the morning, when the bars closed.  Paul and Herbert, whose state after a long night of drinking can only be guessed, got into the car of a friend who drove them home.  Still joking as they tumbled out of the car, Herbert spotted a poster that had been pasted on a nearby wall and was partially coming off. Tearing the poster off the wall, Herbert crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the car at his friend saying, “Here! You can use this to clean your windshield!”  It seems that Herbert didn’t recognize the poster as Nazi propaganda, nor did he notice the Stormtrooper watching nearby.  Although lacking legal authority, the hundreds of thousands of brown-shirted Stormtroopers of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung constituted a militia of the Nazi Party and were free to attack and bully citizens  who showed any sign of dissent from the regime.  Although Herbert was non-political, the waiting Stormtrooper saw his petty vandalism as a political act and took him into custody.  Paul went along to be a witness in his brother’s defense, but soon found himself taken into custody as well.

Paul Fischer (1909-1947). This picture was taken a couple of years after his imprisonment by the Gestapo in 1933.

As Paul and Herbert got passed on from the Stormtrooper to a bicycle policeman to an automobile police squad to the police station, the story of the incident grew from a tipsy prank to an organized conspiracy against the state.  By dawn, both Herbert and Paul were arrested and imprisoned and their case turned over to the “political police,”  a part of the recently formed Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo). Apparently the fact that Paul was a lawyer in training (Referendar) increased the Gestapo’s suspicions.  The brothers were held for more than a week without charges and were subject to repeated beatings.

The day after the arrest, my grandmother and my father and mother began agitating with the police for the young men’s release.  It took three days just to identify the official with authority over Paul and Herbert’s case.  My grandmother was so desperate for her sons’ release that she forced herself to mumble “Heil Hitler!” to the police official, the only time in the entire Nazi period that she ever used that hated salutation. As my father wrote at the time, “Endless approaches, endless waiting, walking down endless corridors, daily hopes, daily disappointments, long negotiations and discussions, after the third day with the help of a lawyer.”  After a week, Paul was released with no explanation either for his arrest or his beatings or his release.  He left the city immediately to recuperate from the wounds he received in the beatings. Herbert continued to be held, inexplicably, because, as my father wrote, “He never at any time ever engaged in any political activity whatsoever.” Nevertheless, it took another week to negotiate his release, again without explanation, but, as my mother wrote, he came out “relatively undamaged.”

In the end, it all came to nothing and the brothers returned to their respective occupations.  But the reality of being arrested and beaten and held for many days for no reason was part of the atmosphere of terror that would be part of daily life in Germany for the next 12 years.

Johennes Höber’s letter to his parents telling of the Gestapo’s arrest of his brothers-in-law, Herbert Fischer and Paul Fischer, on November 8, 1933. (Deutschleser: Bitte klicken für ein größeres Bild.)

More stories about the Hoeber and Fischer families are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available here. Also available at

A Story in Some Grains of Sand

Old Delft vase acquired by Jacob Marx around 1870, Berlin.

Old Delft vase acquired by Jacob Marx around 1870, Berlin.

When I went to my late sister Susanne’s Vermont home recently, I spotted this familiar old family vase.  I placed it on a table on the sunny porch to photograph it. Then, with  relatives watching, I turned the vase over and poured out — some ordinary sea sand.

Sand from the Baltic, Kiel 1914, Barnard 2016

Sand from the vase. Baltic Sea, Kiel 1914, Barnard, Vermont 2016

How did I know there would be sand in the vase?  The answer is a story I heard from my father a long time ago.

My great-grandfather, Jacob Marx, was a banker and investor in Berlin in the mid-nineteenth century.  He made some smart investments in the industrial boom before and after the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s.  Some of his new wealth he invested in art, including several antique Delft vases.

Jakob Marx, 18XX-18XX

Jakob Marx, 1835-1883

After Jacob died in 1883, the vases were owned by his widow, Marie, and when she died in 1913 they were inherited by my grandparents, Rudolf Höber and Josephine Marx Höber.  At that time, Rudolf and Josephine lived on Hegewischstrasse in Kiel, a university city and naval harbor on the Baltic Sea.

Rudolf and Josephine Höber with their first child, Johannes, around December 1904.

Rudolf and Josephine Höber with their first child, Johannes, around December 1904 (ten years before they inherited the Delft vases).

Josephine displayed the vases atop a tall Schrank, an antique wardrobe cabinet in the family living room. Inconveniently, however, a streetcar line traversed the street in front of the residence, and every time a trolley went past the Delft vases shook and rattled.  The noise annoyed Josephine, who also feared the old pieces would be shaken off the cabinet and break.  To resolve the problem, she gave her ten-year-old son Johannes a metal pail and told him to go down to the shore of the Baltic, fill the bucket with sand and bring it home.  Josephine then filled each  Delft vase with sand.  The extra weight kept them from rattling on top of the Schrank for the next 19 years.

In 1933, the Nazis forced Rudolf out of his position in Kiel and he and Josephine emigrated to Philadelphia.  They took the vases with them — and the sand went along.  Josephine died in 1941 and Rudolf in 1953 and then the vases — and the sand — were inherited by my parents, Johannes and Elfriede.  They moved several times and at each move the vases were carefully packed and the sand with them.

Johannes died in Washington DC in 1977 and Elfriede in Oakland, California in 1999.  When we divided up Elfriede’s possessions among her three children, my sister  Sue expressed a desire to have the Delft vases.  We wrapped them and transported them — and the sand — to the house in Barnard, Vermont, where she and her husband Lloyd worked and wrote in the summers for many years. And there they have remained until now.  The next home for the Delft vases and the sand from the Baltic Sea remains to be seen.

Sue and Lloyd Rudolph's house in Barnard, Vermont, the last stop so far in the Delft vases ' journey.

Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph’s house in Barnard, Vermont, the last stop so far in the Delft vase’s journey.

More stories about the Hoeber family are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available here. Also available at

The Dark Humor of a Nuremberg Prosecutor — 1945

Robert Kempner was my parents’ friend and, like them, a Social Democrat and activist against the Nazi Party before 1933.  Like them, he fled Germany for America before World War II.  At the end of the War the U.S. government recruited Kempner, a lawyer, to be one of the lead prosecutors  at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg. The fact that he was bilingual made Kempner particularly effective in cross examining the Nazi leadership.  He also was a witness against Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1960.

Robert M. W. Kempner when he was a prosecutor at the International War Crimes Tribunal, Nuremberg, 1946.

Robert M. W. Kempner when he was a prosecutor at the International War Crimes Tribunal, Nuremberg, 1946.

While my parents were able to escape Germany before the War, my mother’s mother and three brothers were trapped there for the duration.  After the war, communications between Americans and German nationals continued to be restricted for many months.  Desperate for news about her family, and unable to communicate through civilian channels, my mother wrote to Robert Kempner in Nuremberg asking him to find out if they were alright.  As a prosecutor, he had access to the American military mail system, and wrote my parents an extraordinary postcard in response. The original is preserved in my family’s papers.

Postcard from Nuremberg Prosecutor Robert M. W. Kempner to Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, December 26, 1945.

Postcard from Nuremberg Prosecutor Robert M. W. Kempner to Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, December 26, 1945.

The first surprising thing is that Kempner used a Nazi-era card with an Adolf Hitler postage stamp.  There is great irony in the inscription on the lower left: The Führer knows only war, work and care. We want to take whatever part [of that burden] off him that we can.  By the time this postcard was written, the Führer’s cares were long over, since he had killed himself more than six months earlier when the Nazis were crushed by the Allies.

The trial of Major War Criminals had begun on November 20, 1945 and would continue until the end of the next year. There was evidently a Christmas recess in the proceedings, since Kempner writes that he was on a vacation trip (!)  to places like Heidelberg and Mannheim where he and my parents had been associated in anti-Nazi activities years earlier.  Note, by the way, that Kempner wrote in English, even though his and my parents’ first language was German.  American military censors would probably not have allowed letters through if they were written in a language other than English.

Reverse of Postcard from Bob Kempner to Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, December 26, 1945.

Reverse of Postcard from Robert Kempner to Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, December 26, 1945.

Kempner did not respond directly to my mother’s questions about her family (he probably wasn’t able to contact them) but he responded to reports of widespread starvation and freezing conditions in the war-devastated country.  This was probably my mother’s biggest concern and Kempner wrote, “The Germ.[an] situation is not to [sic] bad, they need more fat and meat but they have enough bread and also enough coal for [heating] 1-2 rooms.”  Overall, though, Kempner shows little sympathy for the suffering of the Germans, far too many of whom denied any involvement in the nation’s atrocities.  Here is the full text of the postcard:

Dec 26
Dear Elfriede and Jonny:
It was very nice of Elfriede to write me.  Thanks for the letter.  At present I am travelling (5-6 days) for vacation, visiting Heidelberg, Mannheim, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt.
The Germ. situation is not to[o] bad, they need more fat and meat but have enough bread and also coal for 1-2 rooms.  Of course, they don’t like the de-nazification program.  You know they all ‘had’ to join the Party, were helpful to Jews, if not having a Jewish grandmother, or at least participants of July 20, 1944, which was, if all the allegations of participation were true, a mass movement of the first rank.  The Communist vote will be pretty low because of the happenings in the Russian area where fraternization without giving cigarettes is called rape.  There are a lot of openings for Elfr. & Jonny but I think we better stay around Philadelphia Pa.  Hope you will write me again.
Robert MWK

“July 20, 1944” refers a failed attempt by eight military officers to assassinate Hitler.  After the war, totally unrealistic numbers of German claimed to have supported it.

The comment about the Russians is unclear, but it was well known that the occupying Soviet Army committed massive rapes of German women, including elderly women and young girls.

Kempner’s comments about “lots of openings” refers to the fact that, as exiled Germans committed to democracy, my parents would have opportunities in a new government to be installed by the Allies — but Kempner didn’t recommend it.  In any event, my parents never considered returning to the country from which they had been driven out.

It was an idiosyncrasy of Kempner’s that he addressed my father as “John” or “Jonny.” My father was adamant about not Anglicizing his name, which was Johannes. During his lifetime Robert Kempner was the only one with the temerity to address him as John.

Years later, Robert Kempner successfully sued the German government for restitution on behalf of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of victims of the Nazis, primarily in Israel and America.  My parents were among the clients for whom he secured some compensation from the German authorities for the losses they had suffered.

More stories about the Hoeber family are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available hereAlso available at

Review of “Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939” from CHOICE, A Publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries


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I am delighted that the following review appeared on May 1, 2016, in CHOICE, a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries.  


AGAINST TIME:  Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939,  by Francis W. Hoeber

Francis Hoeber possesses, apparently, decades’ worth of materials from his family’s history.  However, he has chosen to publish only letters from 1938 and 1939, because they are truly exceptional in foregrounding human experience in the face of obliterating fascism.  His father, Johannes, had emigrated from Germany in 1938, with the idea that Elfriede would follow with their young daughter.  Complications arose.  Eventually they united, lived in the US, and raised their family.  That is a passive, objective summary.  In contrast, these letters, written by two literate, gifted writers, construct a deeply experienced history entwined with significant world events.  Genuine, emotional, human, rational—the letters exemplify precisely why published history needs such primary material. We can read or view synthesized historical accounts in textbooks or documentaries; we can summarize and categorize, intellectually.  However, only by absorbing the personal narratives of people who recount the events they lived through can readers approximate the feelings, the vibrant presence, the individual acts that enliven historical experience.  Through self-expressed microhistory, whether routine (running a business) or epochal (Kristallnacht), readers feel the macrohistory viscerally.  Hoeber provides relevant context in footnotes and summaries to orient readers.

Summing up:  Highly recommended.

–J. B. Wolford, University of Missouri—St. Louis

More information about Against Time is available by clicking here.

You can order the book directly from the publisher by clicking here.

Also available at